In honor of Women’s History Month, The Lily is looking back at 31 historical moments influenced by women. We revisit the women who pushed to liberalize abortion laws before Roe v. Wade, fought for the rights of Mexican women making less than $3 a week, helped desegregate bus travel and more.
We explore what motivated these women, and we invite you to help us document the present by sharing the names of women who are continuing their legacy. If there’s a historical figure who you think deserves more recognition, share her name with us, too. We’ll do our best to keep telling their stories.
Influencer: Ruth Nunn Steel
Six years before the Supreme Court legalized abortion nationwide in 1973 with Roe v. Wade, a group — helmed by 32-year-old Richard Lamm, a Democratic freshman state lawmaker at the time — took on the issue in Colorado. The group included Democratic and Republican state legislators, as well as Ruth Nunn Steel, Planned Parenthood Colorado’s former president, and Lamm’s wife, Dottie, a psychiatric social worker.
Together, they created a “quiet campaign” to introduce legislation that would loosen restrictions on abortion in Colorado, Lamm told The Lily. The initial bill, which Lamm introduced in February 1967, ignited a heated debate.
Lamm, who eventually served three terms as Colorado’s governor, said that behind the scenes, Steel was “indispensable.” To advocate for a woman’s right to an abortion, Steel would spend hours calling state legislators, said Abby Lochhead, one of her daughters. Lochhead likened her mother to an “unpaid lobbyist.”
The group surprised even itself by securing widespread support — the state’s House and Senate passed the bill, and Gov. John A. Love signed the legislation into law on April 25, 1967. Today, the law would still be considered restrictive to abortion rights advocates: Women were legally allowed to get abortions, but only if a “three-doctor board in an accredited institution” agreed the abortion fit the criteria under the law.
When they were advocating for the bill’s passage, Steel made her presence known. If she visited lawmakers in person, she would show up to the state Capitol wearing a uniform of sorts: white gloves and a hat.
“She dressed very conservatively, and then she would start talking to these old timers about uteruses,” Lamm said. “They ended up really loving her. She was a no-bull---- lady.”
Influencer: Diane Nash
On May 4, 1961, two buses left Washington, D.C., for New Orleans with 13 civil rights activists as passengers. Organized by the Congress of Racial Equality, which practiced nonviolence, this Freedom Ride was meant to challenge segregation in interstate travel facilities after a Supreme Court decision deemed it unconstitutional.
Although the activists had already encountered violence in South Carolina, nothing compared to the mob awaiting their arrival in Alabama. As the activists neared Anniston, members of the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacists attacked the buses, setting one on fire. The Freedom Riders felt they had no choice but to cut their journey short, and some flew to New Orleans.
In Tennessee, Diane Nash, a 23-year-old activist enrolled at the historically black Fisk University, led the Nashville Student Central Committee in continuing the Freedom Rides with support from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Before the students boarded a 6 a.m. bus to Birmingham, they gave Nash “sealed letters to be mailed if they were killed,” she later recalled.
As the Freedom Rides went on, Nash stayed in touch with the Justice Department and the media, recruited and trained Freedom Riders, and kept in contact with communities that were organizing their own bus trips. More than 300 people were jailed, but the Freedom Rides led the Interstate Commerce Commission to ban segregation of bus travel and terminals. The policy went into effect on Nov. 1, 1961.
Influencers: Edith Windsor, Roberta Kaplan, Thea Spyer
Edith Windsor and Thea Spyer, who met in 1969 in a New York City restaurant, were partners for four decades before legally marrying in Canada in 2007. But the U.S. didn’t recognize their marriage, so, when Spyer passed away in 2009, a federal court ordered Windsor to pay $363,053 in estate taxes — something married straight couples were exempt from. “If Thea was Theo, I would not have had to pay that,” Windsor told NPR. “It’s just a terrible injustice … a mistake that has to get corrected.”
The lawsuit resulted in the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2013 that invalidated a portion of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which defined marriage as between a man and a woman for federal purposes. That ruling ultimately led to an even more sweeping Supreme Court decision in 2015 unequivocally allowing same-sex couples to marry in all states.
“If I had to survive Thea,” Windsor said when the court issued its 2013 ruling, “what a glorious way to do it.”
Windsor died in September 2017.
Influencer: Mary Pickford
Pickford, known as “America’s sweetheart” and “the girl with the curls,” was one of the preeminent actresses of the 1910s and ’20s. In 1929, Pickford received the second-ever best actress Oscar for her performance in “Coquette.” She was also the first woman to negotiate a $1 million movie contract.
More than just “the girl with the curls,” Pickford leveraged her acting fame to produce and direct, a path heavily male-dominated even today, and co-founded the production company United Artists. Passionate about making the industry better, Pickford would, according to reports, hang a bucket on every set and ask for contributions for industry people without work. She co-created the Motion Picture & Television Fund with the same mission.
In 1976, Pickford was given an Academy Honorary Award “in recognition of her unique contribution to the film industry and the development of film as an artistic medium.”
Pickford died in 1979, but she’s still remembered as one of Hollywood’s pioneering women.
Influencer: Millie Ketcheschawno
In 1991, ahead of the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s voyages to the Americas, Berkeley, Calif., became the first U.S. city to officially recognize Indigenous Peoples’ Day instead of Columbus Day. Berkeley’s City Council decided that the Italian explorer, who is often falsely credited with discovering the Americas on a transatlantic journey, wasn’t worth celebrating after the Berkeley Resistance 500 Task Force presented evidence that he invaded the Americas and his policies led to the death and enslavement of native people. The weekend before Berkeley’s first Indigenous Peoples’ Day on Oct. 12, 1992, organizers marked the occasion with celebratory events across the city.
Along with hundreds of other activists, Millie Ketcheschawno, a filmmaker and organizer who fought for Native American rights, founded Resistance 500, the coalition that spearheaded Berkeley’s adoption of Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Ketcheschawno, a member of the Muskogee Creek Nation who participated in the occupation of Alcatraz, was born in Oklahoma but came to the San Francisco Bay Area as part of the federal government’s relocation program in the early 1950s. After Berkeley began celebrating Indigenous Peoples’ Day, she coordinated pow wows — a cultural event with singing and dancing — to commemorate the holiday from 1995 to 1999. Ketcheschawno died in 2000, but today, Berkeley still hosts annual pow wows — and since 1992, approximately 60 U.S. cities have adopted Indigenous Peoples’ Day.
During the Civil War, surgeon Mary Edwards Walker was determined to support the Union and serve her country. In 1861, she left New York for Washington, D.C., where Secretary of War Simon Cameron refused Walker’s request to join the Union army as a physician. Walker looked for work at relief hospitals in the country’s capital but was repeatedly denied paid appointments. Eventually, she volunteered her services at Indiana Hospital, located in the U.S. Patent Office, where she treated hundreds of wounded soldiers.
Walker later began traveling to battlefields on her own, assisting Union soldiers throughout Virginia and at the Battle at Chickamauga in Tennessee. Overwhelmed by the number of injuries and casualties, military surgeons welcomed Walker’s help and praised her work.
Around 1864, General George H. Thomas assigned Walker to the 52nd Ohio Volunteers as a contracted acting assistant surgeon. That year, she was captured by the Confederates and held as a prisoner of war for four months. On Nov. 11, 1865, President Andrew Johnson awarded her the Medal of Honor for meritorious service. When the medal was rescinded in 1917, Walker refused to part with it. Long after her death, President Jimmy Carter reinstated the honor, making Walker the only woman to ever receive the Medal of Honor.
Influencer: U.S. women’s national soccer team
On Aug. 1, 1996, more than 76,000 fans watched as the U.S. women’s national soccer team competed for gold at the Olympics in Atlanta. Everything about the match between the U.S. and China was historic. The first Olympics to include women’s soccer, the final drew a record-breaking crowd.
With two goals from Shannon MacMillan and Tiffeny Milbrett, the U.S. beat China 2-1 that day. Sixteen players — including Michelle Akers, who advocated for the Olympic inclusion of women’s soccer, Mia Hamm, Brandi Chastain and Briana Scurry — secured the team’s first gold medal. Their victory only added to the excitement surrounding women’s soccer, which had been growing since the U.S. won the first Women’s World Cup in 1991. Still, NBC only dedicated 20 minutes of airtime to the gold medal game, and prior to the Summer Games, the U.S. women were fighting for equal pay, something they are still advocating for today.
Influencer: Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson
It began as a routine police raid — a frequent occurrence at gay bars in the United States at the time — on the Stonewall Inn in New York City’s Greenwich Village. What happened next on a late June night in 1969 would turn into a violent, six-day uprising that dramatically shaped the LGBTQ rights movement.
Activists Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson were central to what would become known as the Stonewall riots. It’s said that the riots started when a brick was thrown at a police officer, a reaction to what was believed to be an unjust raid. Johnson is often credited with throwing the brick, igniting the riots, and Rivera credited with throwing the first Molotov cocktail that night, a claim she refutes. (She says she threw the second, not the first.) Although exactly who did what first has been contested, Rivera and Johnson were important figures that night — and in LGBTQ activism their whole lives.
The year following the Stonewall riots, Rivera and Johnson founded Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, or STAR, to advocate for young transgender people. That same year, on the anniversary of the Stonewall riots on June 28, 1970, activists in New York City held the first iteration of what is now known as the annual LGTBQ pride parade.
In 2016, President Barack Obama designated the area in Greenwich Village that encompasses the Stonewall Inn a national monument: the first such monument to the gay rights movement.
Influencers: Deesha Dyer, Cristeta Comerford, Anita Lo and Susan Morrison
On Sept. 25, 2015, President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama hosted Chinese President Xi Jinping and first lady Peng Liyuan for a state dinner at the White House. It was the Obamas’ ninth state dinner, and behind the scenes, it was mostly women calling the shots. It was White House social secretary Deesha Dyer’s first state dinner, and three women were responsible for the most important part of any event: the food.
White House executive chef Cristeta Comerford; guest chef Anita Lo, a Chinese-American who ran the Michelin-starred restaurant Annisa in New York; and White House pastry chef Susan Morrison collaborated on the menu for the evening. (Comerford and Morrison were the first women to hold their respective titles.) Inspired by autumn, the chefs served four courses: wild mushroom soup with black truffle; butter-poached Maine lobster with spinach, shiitake and leek rice noodle rolls; grilled Cannon of Colorado lamb with garlic-fried milk and baby broccoli; and — for dessert — poppyseed bread and butter pudding with Meyer lemon curd lychee sorbet.
Influencer: Elizabeth Peratrovich
In 1941, Elizabeth Peratrovich and her husband, Roy Peratrovich, moved from Klawock, Alaska, to Juneau with their three children. When they started searching for housing, they were denied a property because of their race: The couple belonged to the Tlingit nation. At the time, Elizabeth Peratrovich was president of the Alaska Native Sisterhood, and Roy Peratrovich led the Alaska Native Brotherhood.
Discrimination against native people, who were granted U.S. citizenship by the federal government in 1924, was common throughout Alaska, which at the time was a U.S. territory. Businesses in Juneau displayed signs in their window with proclamations such as, “No natives allowed.,” Schools were still widely segregated.
With support from their community and Democrat Ernest Gruening, governor of the Alaska territory, Elizabeth and Roy Peratrovich advocated for passage of the Alaska Anti-Discrimination Act. Despite passing in the Territorial House of Representatives, the bill faced significant pushback in the Senate. On Feb. 5, 1946, when the Senate opened the floor to public comment after debating the bill, Elizabeth delivered a rousing speech that earned “volleying applause,” an article from the Daily Alaska Empire reported the following day.
Ultimately, the Senate passed the bill, which provided for “full accommodations, facilities and privileges to all citizens in places of public accommodation within the jurisdiction of the Territory of Alaska.” (It took almost two decades for the continental U.S. to pass a similar nationwide law.) Gov. Gruening signed it into law on Feb. 16, 1945, and since 1988, Alaskans have celebrated Elizabeth Peratrovich Day on that date.
Elizabeth Peratrovich was recommended by Shari Huhndorf, a professor of Native American studies at the University of California at Berkeley.
Influencer: Billie Jean King
In 1973, Billie Jean King, who for years was the No.1 women’s tennis player in the world, founded the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), the primary organizing body for women’s professional tennis.
King had been fighting for gender equality, especially when it came to equal prize money, in her own career. When she won the U.S. Open in 1972, she received $15,000 less than the men’s champion. She said she wouldn’t play the next year unless the prizes were equal. In 1973, the U.S. Open became the first major tournament to offer equal prize money for men and women.
Weeks after the founding of the WTA, King accepted a challenge from former top men’s player Bobby Riggs. The match was dubbed the “Battle of the Sexes” after Riggs said that even a 55-year-old like himself could beat top female players at the time. King later said, “I thought it would set us back 50 years if I didn't win that match.” She won.
King also became an advocate for gay rights after being publicly outed as a lesbian in 1981, which was “horrible,” as King recalled in an interview with NBC News. Even though she was urged by her lawyer and press representative not to confirm the claim, King decided it was important to do so and tell the truth.
After retiring from tennis in 1983, King became an announcer, coach and author who continued fighting for equality in women’s sports. The WTA continues to advocate for equal pay, coverage and fair conditions.
Democrat Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to Congress, announced her presidential campaign in a Brooklyn school auditorium on Jan. 25, 1972. The setting was fitting for the former teacher with roots in the borough’s Bedford-Stuyvesant community. About 500 people crowded into the Concord Baptist Church elementary school to see Chisholm make history, according to a New York Times report. That day, she became the first woman and first African American to run for a major political party’s presidential nomination.
“I am not the candidate of black America, although I am black and proud,” Chisholm said in her announcement. “I am not the candidate of the women’s movement of this country, although I am a woman, and I’m equally proud of that. I am not the candidate or any political bosses or fat cats or special interests. … I am the candidate of the people of America.”
Chisholm’s name appeared on 12 states’ primary ballots. She didn’t win any primaries, but Chisholm received some support and garnered 152 votes at the Democratic National Convention before ending her presidential campaign. The congresswoman continued her work in the House of Representatives, where she spent seven terms advocating for issues such as education and women’s rights before retiring in 1983.
Influencer: Madeleine Vionnet
For centuries, the corset was a staple for many European women. Corsets were often made with stiff boning, rubbery elastic and elaborate lacing in the back to tighten the undergarment. But in the early 20th century, French fashion designer Madeleine Vionnet decided she wanted to do away with corsets, “to free fabric from the constraints that other cuts imposed on it.”
Vionnet began using the bias-cut technique, which she is largely credited for popularizing, to create clothing with greater stretch, more fluid curves and soft draping. In the journal “Fashion Theory,” Anne Bissonnette wrote that Vionnet’s focus was on the natural female body, “uncorseted and unhindered,” as “she recognized that women differed in their physiques and taste for clothes.”
Vionnet opened a fashion house in her own name in 1912, and at her business’s peak, Vionnet had 26 ateliers and employed 1,000 staff members. As the website Business of Fashion put it, Vionnet “literally changed the way clothes could be cut, but one would barely have known it.”
Madeleine Vionnet was recommended by Susan Hiner, a professor of French studies at Vassar College.
Influencer: Emma Tenayuca
The Southern Pecan Shelling Company dominated San Antonio in the 1930s, when the Texas city was home to 400 pecan shelling plants. Most of the workers were Tejana — Texan women of Hispanic descent — and Mexican women, many of whom experienced health issues while working in the poorly ventilated plants.
While the rest of the country moved toward using machines, Southern Pecan relied heavily on cheap labor. The workers earned $2 to $3 a week. After the company’s owner, Julius Seligmann, instituted a pay cut, about 12,000 workers went on strike. Led by Emma Tenayuca, a Tejana activist, the workers demanded higher pay. The city’s mayor, C.K. Quinn, and Owen W. Kilday, chief of police, tried to “portray the entire strike as communist-inspired” because of Tenayuca’s connection to the party, historian Gabriela Gonzalez told Texas Public Radio. During the strike, police arrested her, along with hundreds of others.
Ultimately, the strike lasted three months. Southern Pecan and the workers agreed to arbitration, according to the Texas State Historical Association. The settlement they reached was soon increased because the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 established a national minimum wage of 25 cents an hour. Soon after, Southern Pecan switched from manual labor to cracking machines.
Emma Tenayuca was recommended by Elizabeth García, visiting faculty at the University of Florida’s Center for Latin American Studies.
Influencer: Miriam Menkin
In 1944, Miriam Menkin and her mentor, John Rock, performed the first in vitro fertilization (IVF) of a human egg.
Originally from Latvia, Menkin came to the U.S. with her family in 1903, when she was 2 years old. Menkin received an undergraduate degree from Cornell University in histology — the study of the microscopic structure of animal and plant tissues — and comparative anatomy in 1922. She earned a master’s degree in genetics from Columbia University the following year. Menkin planned on going to medical school, but it was rare for women to be admitted at the time — Harvard Medical School did not even allow women to formally apply until 1944 — and she was not accepted.
Menkin later became a laboratory assistant and researcher at the Free Hospital for Women in Brookline, Mass. She worked for Rock, an obstetrician and gynecologist, who played a major role in the development of the first birth control pill.
For six years, Menkin and Rock attempted IVF before they were successful. Once they were, their work was published in a 1944 Science Magazine article, causing a stir in the scientific community and leading others to attempt IVF. Menkin and Rock paved the way for the more than 8 million babies born from IVF since 1978.
Influencer: Anna Arnold Hedgeman
The March on Washington in 1963, in which Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his legendary “I Have a Dream” speech, was a hugely significant moment for the civil rights movement. The goal of the march — civil and economic rights for African Americans — was something many African American women at the time were already fighting for, but they were largely sidelined in the planning and programming of the march.
There was only one woman invited to be on the march’s administrative committee: Anna Arnold Hedgeman, who was then on the staff of the Commission on Religion and Race of the National Council of Churches. Hedgeman spoke up about how the program for the march had not one female speaker, arguing, “In light of the role of the Negro women in the struggle for freedom ... it is incredible that no woman should appear as a speaker at the historic March on Washington Meeting at the Lincoln Memorial.”
Though Hedgeman did convince the leaders to include a woman speaker, that woman was caught in traffic on her way to the National Mall and missed her slot. Daisy Bates, who played a leading role in the Little Rock Nine integration in Arkansas, jumped in to give brief remarks.
Other women who were prominent advocates were also snubbed that day. Dorothy Height, who was president of the National Council of Negro Women, and Rosa Parks were assigned to walk with the wives of civil rights leaders.
At a 2013 event honoring notable women in the civil rights movement — including Bates, Hedgeman and Height, who had all passed away by that time — Bernice King, King’s daughter, said it’s essential to remember these women in history. “Oftentimes,” she said, “it’s in the periphery, in the backroom, somewhere on the fringes where the story of women is told.”
When Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman director to win an Oscar for “The Hurt Locker” — an Iraq War drama — in 2010, only three women had been nominated in the category since the Academy Awards began in 1929. The nominees were Lina Wertmüller for “Seven Beauties” in 1976, Jane Campion for “The Piano” in 1993 and Sofia Coppola for “Lost in Translation” in 2003.
During the Academy Awards on March 7, 2010, Barbra Streisand announced the nominees for best director. Streisand noted that there were two people who could make history that night: Bigelow and Lee Daniels, who was nominated for “Precious.” If Daniels had won, he would have become the first black director to take home an Oscar in the directing category. Ultimately, Bigelow took the stage, dedicating the award to those in the military “who risk their lives on a daily basis.” That night, “The Hurt Locker” reigned supreme with six wins, including best picture. Since 2010, no other woman has won in the category, and no black director has taken home the award. (Greta Gerwig was nominated in 2017 for “Lady Bird,” but lost to Guillermo del Toro and “The Shape of Water.”)
Influencer: Bhairavi Desai
Late last year, the New York Taxi Workers Alliance (NYTWA) helped pass landmark legislation establishing a minimum wage for Uber and Lyft drivers, making New York the first city to impose wage rules on ride-hailing companies. The NYTWA has been fighting for drivers’ rights since 1998, when the organization was founded.
“I wanted to work around issues of class and labor, and what is a better community than taxi drivers?” That’s what Bhairavi Desai, a founding member and current president of the NYTWA, told the New York Times one year after the organization’s inception.
An immigrant from India who moved to the United States with her family when she was 6, Desai said it wasn’t just her parents who sacrificed for her to have an education and opportunity in America. In the New York Times article, she acknowledged “the sacrifice of the working men and women in the country, of the immigrants in this country. I think I owe them something in return.”
Now, the NYTWA is a “21,000-member strong union of NYC yellow cab, green car, black car, livery and app-dispatched drivers,” according to its website.
Influencer: Pat Summitt
In 1984, the U.S. women’s Olympic basketball team, led by Cheryl Miller, then a University of Southern California star player, defeated South Korea 85-55. It was the first time the U.S. women’s basketball team won an Olympic gold medal. Pat Summitt, who served as coach, had played in the 1976 Olympics — the first year a women’s basketball tournament occurred at the Olympics — and helped the U.S. women’s team take home silver.
At age 22, Summitt became the head coach of the University of Tennessee Lady Vols and shaped a powerhouse team over her 38-year coaching career. She was the first college basketball coach to reach 1,000 victories.
Throughout her career, Summitt spoke about slights women faced in the sport. “We were capable of heavy farmwork, and of absorbing whippings, but for some reason, they didn’t think we could run 94 feet without getting the vapors and passing out or damaging our ovaries,” she said in her 2013 autobiography.
It’s said that Regina Jonas had wanted to become a rabbi since age 11, but she didn’t have any examples to look up to; a woman had never been ordained as a rabbi at that time. But Jonas didn’t stop trying to achieve her goal; her 1933 final paper at the Higher Institute for Jewish Studies in Berlin was titled, “Can a Woman Be a Rabbi According to Halachic Sources?” In 1935, she answered her own question: Jonas was ordained in Germany, becoming the first woman rabbi.
However, no congregation that Jonas spoke to was willing to hire her — she fulfilled rabbinic positions only in senior homes and hospitals until she was interned in Theresienstadt, a concentration camp, in 1942; she died two years later in Auschwitz. After her death, her story was largely forgotten. However, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, a researcher discovered some of Jonas’s documents and papers, such as her ordination letter, and her story was brought to light.
Up until that point, the first woman believed to be ordained as a rabbi was Sally Priesand, in 1972. The discovery of Jonas’s documents suggested that Priesand was the first American woman rabbi. Many more women have been ordained since, and recently, women have started becoming rabbis in Orthodox Judaism, which had long excluded women from positions in the clergy.
According to the Jewish Women’s Archive, Jonas wrote this in 1938: “God has placed abilities and callings in our hearts without regard to gender. Thus each of us has a duty, whether man or woman, to realize those gifts God has given. If you look at things this way, one takes woman and man for what they are: human beings.”
Influencer: Jeanne Córdova and Beth Elliott
For three days in the spring of 1973, about 1,500 women gathered at the University of California at Los Angeles for an event billed as the first of its kind: the National Lesbian Conference. According to a report in the L.A. Free Press, “beaming feminists, some topless, swarmed” UCLA’s campus from April 13 to 15.
One of the driving forces behind the conference was Jeanne Córdova, an activist who once led the L.A. chapter of the Daughters of Bilitis, the first civil rights and political organization for lesbians in the United States, and the editor behind the Lesbian Tide, a feminist publication. At the beginning of the National Lesbian Conference, Córdova said men were banned from attending. She then had to quell outrage when musician Beth Elliott, a transgender woman, stepped on stage to perform. The conference was split on whether Elliott should be permitted, and Córdova called a vote. Although a majority voted in favor of Elliott’s performance, the reaction to her presence was an example of the divide between those who supported trans women and those who refused to accept them as members of the lesbian community. In her book, “Mirrors: Portrait of a Lesbian Transsexual,” Elliott writes that she received a death threat prior to attending the conference, which she also helped organize.
After the position was established in 1937, four men were appointed consultants in poetry to the Library of Congress before a woman held the title — that didn’t happen until 1945. That year, Louise Bogan, who served as the poetry reviewer for the New Yorker for nearly 40 years, became the first consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress, a position now known as poet laureate consultant in poetry.
Bogan was known for the economical use of words in her poetry. According to the Poetry Foundation, Marianne Moore, also a poet, wrote in the Nation: “Women are not noted for terseness, but Louise Bogan’s art is compactness compacted.” Author Brett C. Millier, a contributor to the Dictionary of Literary Biography, wrote this of Bogan: “The fact that she was a woman and that she defended formal, lyric poetry in an age of expansive experimentation made evaluation of her work, until quite recently, somewhat condescending.”
After Bogan’s passing in 1970, a number of works were published about her, such as Elizabeth Frank's biography, “Louise Bogan: A Portrait,” which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1986.
In 1986, “The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers” debuted on Fox, making Rivers the first woman to have a late night show on a major network.
Before landing a career-changing regular guest host role on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson, Rivers struggled as a stand-up comic for years. Her career at Fox came to a halt in May 1987, when Rivers challenged Fox executives who wanted to fire her husband, Edgar Rosenberg, the show’s producer. The network ended up firing both Rivers and Rosenberg, and her husband committed suicide months later.
Rivers went on to host another talk show, “The Joan Rivers Show,” in 1989, which she said was “a case of getting back on the horse,” and proving it was Fox, not her, that was the problem. In 1990, Entertainment Weekly wrote that the show, which Rivers won an Emmy for, was “a better showcase for her funny edginess than her doomed 1988 Fox nighttime program was.”
Rivers went on to host and perform her whole life with a tell-it-like-it-is comedic style. She died in 2014.
Influencers: Reps. Patricia Schroeder and Marge Roukema
The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) was the first bill former president Bill Clinton signed into law. The intention of the bill was to “to balance the demands of the workplace with the needs of families,” allowing up to 12 weeks of job-protected unpaid leave to workers to care for a new child or a seriously ill family member, or to recover from a serious medical condition.
Former Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.), co-founder of the Congressional Women’s Caucus, initially drafted the bill and fought for nearly a decade for its passage. Schroeder and Marge Roukema (R-N.J.) were both co-sponsors of the final bill and large forces behind its success.
In 1990, Roukema wrote an op-ed for the New York Times, arguing that the concerns at the heart of family leave are not abstract. “When my son was stricken with leukemia and needed home care, I was able to be at home to give him the loving care he needed. But what of the millions of mothers who work for the thousands of companies that do not have family leave policies?”
While the FMLA — the only federal legislation specifically designed to help workers balance family and work — was a landmark achievement at the time, in retrospect, Schroeder wished the bill was more expansive.
“I’m almost embarrassed to say that’s my bill,” she said in 2014.
Influencer: Mary Lou Williams
By the time jazz musician Mary Lou Williams moved to Europe in the early 1950s, she was already a revered composer and pianist in the United States. But despite the availability of some work, the music landscape in London and Paris made it hard for Williams to continue her success. Facing financial strain and depression, Williams put jazz on hold. When she returned to Harlem in 1954, Williams brought with her a desire to deepen her relationship with God. She explored different religions, dabbling in Baptism before deciding to convert to Catholicism.
By the late 1950s, Williams had started a charity, the Bel Canto Foundation, and opened a thrift store in Harlem. She returned to the stage, too. Then, in 1962, Pope John XXIII canonized Martin de Porres, a Peruvian Dominican known for his generosity. Moved by the saint’s story — his mother, Ana Velazquez, had been formerly enslaved in Panama, and his father, a Spanish gentleman, wanted little to do with a mixed race child — Williams composed the beginnings of her famous choral piece, “Black Christ of the Andes (St. Martin de Porres).”
On Nov. 3, 1962 — St. Martin’s inaugural feast day — Williams’s masterpiece debuted at the Saint Francis Xavier Church in New York. Almost a year later, she recorded the hymn, which was officially released in 1964.
Influencer: Florence Kelley
Florence Kelley came to Chicago in the late 1800s with her three children after fleeing an abusive husband in New York. For almost a decade, Kelley lived in Hull House, a social settlement located in a poor Chicago neighborhood that was home to European immigrants, many of whom were sweatshop laborers. Founded by Jane Addams and Ellen Starr in 1889, Hull House provided the community with resources, such as child care, education and an employment bureau. It was also a hub for social reformers.
Addams helped Kelley, the college-educated daughter of a U.S. congressman, get a position at the Illinois Bureau of Labor Statistics, where she surveyed the working conditions for women and children in sweatshops. Kelley saw toddler-aged child laborers and found that women were working long hours for little pay. (The Illinois state legislature had passed an eight-hour workday law in 1867, but it wasn’t enforced.) When she reported her findings to the state, Kelley suggested solutions, such as creating age minimums for child laborers and restricting women’s work days to eight hours. Kelley also advocated for penalties and the appointment of a factory inspector.
Kelley’s ideas morphed into a bill, and in 1893, the state legislature passed the Workshop and Factories Act, which became law under Gov. John Peter Altgeld (D). Altgeld then appointed Kelley as the state’s first chief factory inspector. She hired a small staff and worked tirelessly to enforce the law. In 1895, the Supreme Court of Illinois overturned the state’s right to limit the number of hours a woman could work.
Influencer: Patsy T. Mink
“No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”
Title IX is a broad gender equity act, but is most famously applied to guarantee that women have equal access to athletics, on-campus housing, education, employment opportunities. Under the law, sex discrimination can also include sexual harassment, rape and sexual assault.
On the 25th anniversary of the passage of the law in 1997, Mink said that Title IX was one of her most significant accomplishments while she served in Congress. “Equal educational opportunities for women and girls is essential for us to achieve parity in all aspects of our society,” she said.
Following Mink’s death in 2002, the legislation was renamed the Patsy T. Mink Equal Opportunity in Education Act.
Influencer: Mary Church Terrell
In 1896, black women activists and suffragists formed the National Association of Colored Women (NACW), which became the largest federation of local black women’s clubs. Mary Church Terrell was its founding president. The NACW’s motto was “Lifting as We Climb,” emphasizing the effort to uplift the lives of all African Americans.
Terrell’s father, who was formerly enslaved, had become the first African American “millionaire” in the South by the time Terrell was growing up, providing the family with the means to send her to college. Terrell was one of the first African American women to graduate from college, began her career as a high school teacher in Washington, D.C., and soon after, became the first African American woman to be appointed to the D.C. Board of Education. She led efforts in D.C. for the integration of public spaces such as restaurants. She was also a founding member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), a leading civil rights organization to this day.
Terrell lived to see the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which outlawed segregation in the public schools. She died two months later.
In 1920, author Zona Gale published “Miss Lulu Bett,” a short novel about a 33-year-old unmarried woman who lives with her mother, sister and brother-in-law. Lulu is treated poorly and relegated to being the family housekeeper — until she gets married. But when she finds out her new husband is already betrothed to another, Lulu must face the fallout.
The book was a hit for Gale, a writer from Portage, Wis., who had been active in the municipal-housekeeping movement and the fight for women’s rights. Gale quickly adapted “Miss Lulu Bett” for the stage. It first debuted as the annual Christmas play at Sing Sing Prison, and opened at the Belmont Theater in New York on Dec. 27, 1920. Gale altered the play ending twice, which generated criticism but also piqued people’s interest. In 1921, Gale became the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize in drama for “Miss Lulu Bett.”
She continued to experiment with her writing style until her death in 1938.
Influencer: Fe del Mundo
For more than a century following its inception in 1782, only men could apply to Harvard Medical School (HMS). Although women had been inquiring about attending HMS since at least 1847, they were not allowed to formally apply until 1944. Prior to the decision to admit women, people were concerned that there would be a shortage of medical school graduates as World War II waged on. Charles Sidney Burwell, then the dean of HMS, appointed five men to a committee meant to explore the idea of admitting women. By September 1945, women were allowed to attend the school for the first time.
But the story of women at HMS extends beyond the official narrative. Fe del Mundo, a Filipina pediatrician, came to the United States in 1936 after receiving a scholarship from Philippine President Manuel L. Quezon. Del Mundo, who died in 2011, is sometimes cited as the first woman to graduate from HMS in part due to a clerical error: Based on her name, the school allegedly thought she was a man. (This story is disputed by Joan Ilacqua, an archivist for diversity and inclusion at Harvard’s Countway Library of Medicine — she says there is no documentation of this.)
Regardless of whether she graduated from HMS, del Mundo did complete postgraduate work at Boston Children’s Hospital and took classes at the Harvard Medical School Graduate School of Medicine (later called the Courses for Graduates), which allowed women to take classes before HMS. And more notably, del Mundo went on to make history in her country. In 1957, years after caring for children in the Philippines during World War II, del Mundo opened the first pediatric hospital in the Philippines and eventually established the country’s Institute of Maternal and Child Health.
Influencers: Esther Peterson, head of the Women’s Bureau of the Department of Labor, Eleanor Roosevelt, former Reps. Katharine St. George and Edith Green
In 1963, President John F. Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act (EPA). The law prohibited “discrimination on account of sex in the payment of wages by employers.”
Prior to its passing, Esther Peterson, who was the director of the Women’s Bureau of the U.S. Department of Labor at the time, suggested to Kennedy that a commission be established to study the issues facing American women. That body eventually became the President’s Commission on the Status of Women, which Eleanor Roosevelt chaired until her death in 1962.
At its first meeting, the President's Commission on the Status of Women sought to address the wage disparity between men and women. Former Rep. Edith Green (D-Ore.) proposed legislation behind the Equal Pay Act. And former Rep. Katharine St. George (R-N.Y.) proposed the language of the key clause, requiring “equal pay for equal work.” In a debate regarding the bill, St. George likened being against the legislation to “being against motherhood.”
The following year, The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, which also prohibited “discrimination in compensation or other aspects of employment based on race, color, religion, or national origin.”
While the gender wage gap has closed significantly since the EPA’s passing, women still earn just 80 cents on average for every dollar white men make, according to studies; earning is much lower on average for women of color. Latina women make an average of 54 cents, and black women make an average of 63 cents, for every dollar white men make.
Editor’s note: This piece previously misstated the year that Title IX was passed. We regret the error.